What do you do when the big bank CEO calls your hotel room at 11 p.m.?
We were at the same resort for a conference. We were friendly but why did he need to know what I was doing at that hour? How did he even get my room number? I mumbled something about sleep and got back to work, interviewing executives for a story I was working on.
What about the powerful Washington lobbyist who wants to know if you are single (he was not), and whether you’d like to join him for a more private drink? I gulped down my Sauvignon Blanc at the bar, tried to laugh it off, and got out of there.
Or the congressman (now senator) who stares down your shirt so noticeably during an interview that you have to cut the video around it so it doesn’t show on air? The (now former) senator who asks another reporter about you, whether you are single, whether they have your cell number? The legendary TV anchor who looks you up and down like you’re a meal, when you are there to talk about congressional budgets?
I’ve worked as a journalist for 17 years. Starting at ABC News, then local Northern California papers, NPR, Bloomberg TV, CNN and now Marketplace, where I host my own show. I’ve covered everything from local zoning meetings to the White House. And every step of the way, I’ve had to carve extra time and effort out of my work to sidestep this recurring gray area. None of the individual instances quite constituted harassment, but all of them were exhausting to navigate. And looking back, I can’t believe what I put up with.
Some things, of course, were more black-and-white. When I was 25, an ABC News video editor groped my breasts. I told my supervisor. She said I must have misunderstood, and that he was a good guy. I avoided him until I left the company. When I was 29 and working at a local radio station in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, the station manager repeatedly commented on my body, told me sexual jokes, and tried to invite me to dinner. I told him off. Again, told my supervisor. She sympathized, but said there wasn’t really anything she could do as I was just on loan from NPR to the station. He was later arrested for underage solicitation.
Those experiences are stark in my memory, but it’s the murkier interactions I still have questions about. The wink-wink drink invitations. The phone calls. The behavior that falls somewhere along the continuum from avuncular to creepy, but is nonetheless unwelcome. The editor to whom I owe so much and who knows my parents, but comments far too many times on what I look like. “Ha ha, you know my dad! He’s a litigator! Isn’t that funny?.” I would reply bitterly, delicately attempting to set a boundary. I didn’t know how else to behave. “Just ignore it,” as my supervisors had instructed me, was the only thing I knew to do so I could do my job.
Over the course of my career, I have shrugged off things that horrify me now. I learned to push through the routine humiliation. As an ambitious woman, I often ran an internal calculation about how much “trouble” I was willing to make. Should I fight about the story I want to do or the unwelcome remark about my legs? Time and time again, I went with the former. If I hadn’t, I don’t know if I would have been as successful. I’m not ashamed about wanting a career, but I can’t look back at some of my actions without wincing.
Now, in a senior position, I look at my brilliant younger colleagues, and I never want them to endure what for years I told myself was “gray stuff.” Ignoring it, as I’d learned to do, only lets it fester and continue.
Earlier this year, I drove back from an interview with two younger female colleagues. A man we interviewed had touched one of their arms, repeatedly, even when asked to stop. We had to suck it up and finish the day. But I also felt a deep obligation to protect her. It was just like so many things that had happened to me, and I didn’t do enough to stop it. So, driving back to our hotel on a snowy rural highway, we talked. I told them about harassment in my career, from sources and from colleagues. I told them what happened that day was unacceptable. And we gamed out different responses and ways to handle things. None of the options was to ignore it.
I don’t know how to change centuries of conditioning. How to make men see women as peers. To let us just do our jobs. But maybe acknowledging that we live in a culture that doesn’t do that, is a start. I’m a radio host now. I believe strongly in the power of conversation. It is incumbent on everyone to talk about this.